The History of Wandsworth Common

Six Degrees of Wandsworth Common:

Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes

(Looking Glass was first published 27 December 1871.)

27 December 2021.

We have a running joke in our family (at my expense) that I believe that the true centre of the solar system is Wandsworth Common, and that everything (every person, every event, ever) is intimately connected to it.

You probably know the idea behind Six Degrees of Separation (also known as the Six Handshakes Rule) — that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other.

But when it comes to Wandsworth Common, who needs so many steps?

Philip Boys


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Take Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, written by the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. (He's better known as "Lewis Carroll" — so that's the name I'll use here.)

Lewis Caroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832—1898), National Portrait Gallery, London.
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As we all now know, 2021 is/was the 150th anniversary of the saving of Wandsworth Common. But it's also 150 years since the publication (on 27 December 1871) of Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) in which you can find Humpty Dumpty, the Red Queen, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the fearsome Jabberwocky, and the brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Not to forget the Cheshire Cat and the generous invention of the "unbirthday" that can everyone can celebrate 364 days of the year.)

But other than the shared anniversary year 1871, what if anything connects Through the Looking Glass with Wandsworth Common?

Oh, quite a lot, and by several different routes.

For one thing, Carroll had been recommended by local resident Tom Taylor (who wrote for the weekly Punch magazine) to use their regular political cartoonist John Tenniel as his illustrator, and Taylor made the introductions. Taylor was very involved in the campaign to save Wandsworth Common — and published at least three poems on the subject. (See The Wandsworth Common Story, pp.143). Wandsworth-local Arthur Rackham is a major contributor to the visual language of Alice, but it is still Tenniel's illustrations that dominate the imagery. (Sadly, although Rackham was commissioned to illustrate Wonderland he never got to do Looking Glass: see here or here).

Tom Taylor photographed by Lewis Carroll in 1863, possibly taken in Taylor's Battersea Rise home.

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Sir John Tenniel, "from Pen-Drawing by Himself", 1889.

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At home with Arthur Hughes

But here's another way Carroll is connected with our Common. In the early 1860s Carroll was a visitor to the painter Arthur Hughes (1830—1915), who lived and worked at 12 Oberstein Road, a short distance from Wandsworth Common. Hughes was the first occupant in 1863-5, and was visited there by Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

Whitbread map, c.1865. The artist Arthur Hughes and family lived at 12 Oberstein Road, 1863-65 (top left quadrant). Much of the area was open fields, and the Common stretched to within a few yards of their home.

Oberstein Road runs between Louvaine Road and the western branch of Plough Lane, with Brussels Road at right angles. (Why were German and Belgian city names chosen for these streets? Even the Survey of London is puzzled.) Tom Taylor's home, on Lavender Sweep on Battersea Rise, was a little way to the east.

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Carroll loved visiting artists' studios (he knew the Rosettis and Millais, for example), and sometimes commissioned or bought paintings from them.

So Carroll asked Hughes to paint The Lady with Lilacs for him, possibly based on an image he himself had drawn in his original manuscript of Alice (which you can see in a wonderful digital version on the British Library website.

Arthur Hughes, The Lady with the Lilacs (1863), Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.

Commissioned by Lewis Carroll, Arthur Hughes painted this in his studio near Wandsworth Common. According to Carroll's accounts, he paid £26.5s.0d (27 October 1863). Carroll was very pleased with the result.

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Arthur Hughes to Alexander Munro, 7 October 1863:

"Oberstein Road

Will you tell Mr. Dodgson that his picture is not quite ready, wanting a day's work; that IO shall be on Saturday, or more likely I fear not till Monday."

Carroll Diaries, 8 October 1863:

"Mr Hughes told me that the picture I bought of him is finished, and we agreed that he should bring it... to the Macdonalds* on Monday."

Carroll Diaries, 13 October 1863:

"Mr A. Hughes... brought the picture I bought of him some time ago: the lady with the lilacs."

* "the Macdonalds" — a reference to innovative fantasy-writer George Macdonald (1824—1905) and family. Macdonald has been described as Carroll's mentor. Arthur Hughes illustrated a number of Macdonald's works, including Dealings with the Fairies, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, and The Princess and the Goblin, and his nephew was engaged to George Macdonald's daughter Mary. In short, Macdonald appears to be another link between Carroll and Hughes.

A number of Hughes's paintings made during his "Wandsworth Common years" feature lilacs — were they abundant in the garden?

Arthur Hughes, Silver and Gold (1864)

Notice the lilacs, top left, and similar pose of the younger woman above to The Lady with the Lilacs.

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And here's another Hughes' painting from this time:

Arthur Hughes, Ophelia ("And He Will Not Come Back Again") (1865)

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In return, Lewis Carroll took photographs at this time of Hughes and his children, presumably in their back garden.

Arthur Hughes and daughter, photographed in their Wandsworth Common home by Lewis Carroll (1863?)

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Hughes's daughter Amy, photographed by Lewis Carroll (1863?)

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Tryphena Hughes (Arthur's wife) and children.

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There remain a number of other links to explore, including how the image of the White Knight (seen on the cover at the top of this article) seems to be an ironic reference to James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan — also the possible model for the sculpture of St George in front of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum. Cardigan, the hero of the "Charge of the Light Brigade", died while Carroll and Tenniel were working on Looking Glass (28 March 1868).

Is John Tenniel's depiction of the White Knight based on James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan?

Statue of St George killing the (Russian) dragon on the front of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum.
James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (c.1860). Is he the model for the White Knight — what do you think?
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Indeed, I'm tempted to argue that the whole of Through the Looking Glass is a critique of the "medievalism" then in the ascendant in mid-Victorian Britain — and embodied in so many buildings around Wandsworth Common (including the girls' asylum just mentioned, the equivalent asylum for boys [now Emanuel School], the Royal Masonic School for Girls). But that's for another time.

Season's Greetings, everyone. And very best wishes for 2022.


Send me an email if you want to comment on anything you've seen or read on the site, or would like to know more about something, or just want to be kept in touch.

Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")